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Kids, Cupcakes, and Guns: How Our Cognitive Distortions Suffocate Our Children

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

When I tell you that I don’t own a gun, what is your first thought? That I’m a liberal? If so, you just engaged in two of the many cognitive distortions – or faulty thinking patterns – our brains are all-too-apt to commit: stereotyping and jumping to conclusions.

Actually, I consider myself a moderate. I try to learn about all sides of an issue before making a decision, and I try to avoid the domino effect wherein believing in issue A means I must also necessarily believe in issue B, etc. Life is too complex to make blanket appraisals of how the world should be. Yet we do this all the time.

The latest example: A Michigan elementary school recently confiscated some cupcakes brought by an innocent third-grader because they were decorated with toy Army soldiers. The school’s argument? The soldiers were holding guns (they simulated weapons from World War II, mind you), and this was too similar to the Sandy Hook shooting to allow (read the whole article here).

Huh? What in the world do our military heroes have to do with the Sandy Hook shooting? This is a classic example of people in power engaging in dangerous cognitive distortions at the expense of suffocating our children’s learning opportunities. As one of my friends aptly put it, “They missed an opportunity to talk about the difference between good guys and bad guys.” Yes, they did. And it’s because of these two faulty thought processes:

Overgeneralization: Viewing one instance of a phenomenon as having the same qualities of all remotely similar phenomena.

In other words, the school administrators felt that because the Sandy Hook incident involved guns, any reference to a gun in any circumstance is bad and must be avoided.

All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing things in black-and-white categories.

The leaders of the elementary school perceived their options in an either-or fashion: Either we must eliminate all references to guns within any context or circumstance or else we are encouraging all-out gun violence like the Sandy Hook incident. There is no in-between solution.

You can see how limiting these cognitive distortions can be. There certainly is an in-between solution, and it involves trusting that our children are thoughtful enough to learn about the sacrifices of our nation’s service men and women without making a bizarre connection to incidents of psychotic violence.

This school squandered a perfect opportunity to teach its students about an important part of our history – World War II and the Greatest Generation – and turned it into something ridiculous. I’m sure the school’s decision-makers felt they were protecting their students, but I fear they may have done more harm than good. Moreover, the knee-jerk reaction to impound the cupcakes was disrespectful to our nation’s veterans and active military. In the future, I certainly hope that those involved in our children’s education decide to exercise cognitive complexity instead of engaging in the damaging thought processes exemplified here.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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